Are You Experienced? – my favourite book about India


It is probably best to arrive in India when feeling calm and rested, after a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, after a 14 hour flight, I'm not generally at my best.

The first time I landed in India, a couple of years ago, it was a shock. Delhi can feel very hostile to new arrivals. Soon after arriving at Paharganj, the backpacker's quarter, I had to find some rupees to buy bottled water. Dazed, I was swarmed by touts. They could tell I had just arrived and were eager to divert me. I ignored one persistent tout, who worked through a repetoire of openings to get a reaction. He finally came out with "Why don't you go back to your own country".

This year I arrived in India feeling more confident but the start of a long trip always makes me nervous. To relax myself as I queued for immigrations, I started to re-read Are You Experienced. This is my favourite book about travelling in India. I originally read it before my first trip and it was more interesting and thought-provoking than the numerous worthy texts by white BBC journalists.

In re-reading I recognised many of the misconceptions I had on my first trip. The book is scathing about travellers, questioning the reasons why people travel to India, skewering traveller stereotypes and laying out the stages tourists go through when trying to understand a country as complicated as India.

The novel follows Dave, a gap-year student. Dave decides, on a whim, to visit India with his best friend's girlfriend, the insufferable Liz. Dave finds India difficult to deal with and has various encounters and misadventures. Without being didactic, Dave's encounters illustrate some interesting points about travelling in India.

The book discusses the temptation to develop 'theories of India', with the travellers competing with each other over their interpretations. At one point, Dave decides that he most enjoys travelling between locations, where he is not hassled by touts but instead ends up sharing food with other people on the train. "I had assumed that travelling was the crap bit you had to tolerate in order to get to the places that you wanted to see,  but it occurred to me that maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate to do the travelling".

Among the jokes and clever observations are some excellent points. When a train breaks down, Dave seeks the company of the only white person he can see, who turns out to be a Reuters journalist. The conversation goes badly as Dave is mocked for having no idea about the current political situation in India, or what Congress or the BJP are. When Dave defends himself by saying that he doesn't have to revise for his holidays, he comes off second best.  The journalist's resulting rant is fantastic, attacking the idea of treating India as a character-building exercise, a more exotic alternative to mountaineering or running a marathon.

The book also contains an epic dysentry scene which acts as the Campbellian crossing of the threshold. There is also this particular quote towards the end:

"I'd never been jealous of the older travellers before, because most of them were such transparent social failures. The people in their 30s who were still trudging around India had so obviously cocked-up their entire lives that there wasn't much to be jealous of."

I didn't read much of the novel before we were through immigration, finishing it in the hotel that night. Bangalore was peaceful compared to Delhi. We checked into the hotel without problems then helped a German tourist to find the station. I am an older and more experienced person than I was on my first visit.

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One thought on “Are You Experienced? – my favourite book about India”

  1. I always find traveling as a Brit makes me acutely aware of how little Imperial history I know.
    On one hand, maybe that’s a deliberate ignorance – the more I know, the less I kind of want to.
    On the other hand, perspective is always humbling.

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